All Good Things Must Come to an End: The sunset of SEND ME SFMOMA

by , February 2020

It’s time to let it go. Let’s do it the right way.

Long before it went viral a few weeks ago, we discussed sun-setting Send Me SFMOMA, the chatbot we launched as a way to make our collection more accessible. It’s been a delight; we’ve delivered 6,422,646 artworks since June 2017, and when Neil Patrick Harris asked for an octopus emoji it crashed our servers. We were honored.

Graph of January/February 2020 viral traffic.

Here’s the premise of Send Me SFMOMA, as designed by former SFMOMA Creative Technologist Jay Mollica: art lovers text the museum a word or emoji, which queries our open website API, and we text back an artwork image from our 50,000-piece collection. People have requested everything from the word “sad” to a fried egg emoji. The pleasure of chatting with an art museum, and of texting and immediately receiving a texted artwork, has enabled people around the world to engage with our collection and see works that are rarely on view within the museum. Since its launch, the New York Times, Time, Techcrunch, Artnet News, Hyperallergic, and many more have spread the news: Art is just a text away.

Running a short code that received over 6 million texts is expensive, and SFMOMA deals with the same fiscal constraints as every other arts organization and non-profit. But the museum believes (and I agree) that the first priority for all our digital experiences is to encourage and/or enhance IRL encounters with art. We are directing our upcoming projects toward that end.

Send Me SFMOMA requesting "Love."

Therefore, it’s time for Send Me SFMOMA to retire, and that presents a central question for me: how do museums and non-profits close their digital projects? Most project management life cycles include a thoughtful line about “closing” a project. In practice, though, we don’t give real thought to a project’s “end of life.” With so many fantastic trends and interesting bandwagons, it’s easier (and more fun, honestly) for digital teams to simply build something new.

Although responsibly ending a project may not be as fun as launching one, doing so can have many tangible and intangible benefits. Zombie projects drain your team of valuable time by exponentially increasing the need for maintenance over time. Clearing both bandwidth and budgetary restrictions can provide your digital team with the room necessary to develop the next big project.

Want to prevent that one digital project from 2010 that’s still on a first-gen iPad sitting in the gallery from haunting you? Here are my thoughts on making a graceful exit.

Tips and Tricks to “End of Life” your Digital Projects

  1. Plan the end at the beginning.
      • Build an end date into your project plan or grant proposal. Make a checklist of close-out steps. A plan (or a will) for your digital project outlines any donor agreements, stakeholder feedback, or individuals who need to be notified. Your digital project might outlive you at that museum, so do your future colleagues a favor and tell them your intent.
      • Work with your internal or external archive to create a plan for code/asset transference. Your archives can also help guide your project through any potential sticky copyright issues.
  2. Manage expectations
      • Museums think in centuries; timelines exist for exhibitions, scholarship, books. The digital universe thinks in seconds. Set expectations early and often so when it’s time to sunset a project, you will not have to campaign.
  3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.
      • Overcommunication never hurt anyone. Reiterate your project’s timeline every couple of months, until people can recite it in their sleep.
  4. Archive and Share
      • Archive and open-source the code. Github is a gift that keeps on giving.

Graph of the most requested texts were Love, Cats and Blue.

Now that you have documented your project and released the code on Github, breathe a sigh of relief; you have one fewer project to update. Money and team bandwidth are non-renewable resources, and you have freed up valuable time to dream big.

It’s been a fun three years; over 185,000 of you texted “love” and we love you too! Send Me SFMOMA will shut down February 15, but its code and documentation will always be open and available on Github. There’s still time to send one last text, check out the code, and stay tuned for the next cool thing coming out of SFMOMA.

Jennifer Snyder

Jennifer Snyder

Jennifer Snyder is the Director of Digital Experience at SFMOMA.
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